Physicalism, dualism and the challenge of my grandmother
Over at Biologos, Kevin Corcoran is doing a fascinating two-part series of blogs about physicalism, i.e. the view that human persons aren’t made up of bodies and souls (which is called substance dualism), but only bodies. I’m familiar with some of Corcoran’s work and found Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons, which he edited and contributed to, really helpful when I read it a couple of years back.
In his series, Corcoran makes the explicitly Christian case for physicalism. He attempts to show that the core Christian doctrines, as they relate to anthropology, of imago Dei, incarnation and resurrection do not require dualism to make sense. “All can be understood within a physicalist conception of human persons,” he argues. (His view of the incarnation is especially interesting.)
He then presents his case for the constitution view of what a human person is. Persons have no souls apart from or independent of their bodies, souls that could, for example, survive physical death, but neither are they merely identical to their bodies. “I believe,” Corcoran says, “that I am constituted by my body without being identical with my body.” He uses the example of a statue. A statue is constituted by the piece of, say, bronze it’s made out of, but it’s not identical to it. Were the artist to become dissatisfied with his work, he could smash it flat. We would still be talking about the exact same piece of bronze, but would no longer be a statue. Knock someone hard enough over their head and they could end up in a similar situation: Still their flesh, bones and blood, their body, but somehow less than or not quite a person anymore.
I agree with Corcoran. Both in terms of his arguments being sound (you can make sense of key Christian doctrines apart from dualism) and true (I agree with his arguments and consider myself a physicalist).
Most of the time.
Sometimes, though, I fluctuate between physicalism and dualism. If the discussion was merely philosophical, theological and scientific, I wouldn’t doubt where on the spectrum I would come down. But when talking about human persons directly, and not abstract issues surrounding them, and especially when talking about the experiences of relationships between them, there are times when the philosophical, theological and scientific seem to capture only a little bit of what’s going on. There are times when intuition and emotion pull threaten to overwhelm the rational and reasoned.
For me, such a time was my grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, a struggle that she lost in December 2009.
Watching her shrivel, physically and cognitively, into a shadow of herself over the relatively long time she was ill, was profoundly painful, for my mother (her daughter) especially. Seeing suffering up close always is. In the last couple of years of her life, I was studying in Britain and so I only saw her during breaks. I witnessed the decline of her cognitive and physical health somewhat more vividly compared those in my family who lived in the Faroes and could visit her regularly. I remember one particular visit when I discovered that she could no longer use nouns. She no longer remembered any specific things, but mumbled only about “him” or “her” going “here” or “there”. How much is left of a person when they can only think in such extremely general categories? The last time I saw her she couldn’t speak at all. Neither could she feed herself, walk, go to the bathroom by herself or anything. There was little more than a pale shadow or empty husk left of what used to be my all-singing, all-dancing grandmother, so full of life and love.
For me, my grandmother’s increasingly dementia-ravaged mind inevitably provoked questions about what a human person is and what a human person becomes when his or her mental faculties are profoundly disrupted by an illness such as Alzheimer’s. In situations like these the idea of a personal essence somehow independent of the body and the physical is comforting. I would imagine how my grandmother’s soul was gradually losing it’s connection to her body. For most people, that connection is severed instantly at the time of death. For some, like my grandmother, it happens over a number of years. That seemed to make sense on an intuitive level. And it was, as I said, comforting. When confronted with the question of, “Where is my grandmother?”, it made it possible to avoid the most dreadful answer: “Right there. Right there, diminishing into nothing.” Far more comforting to answer, “Not there. She’s off in some other place, or eagerly awaiting her turn to go to that other place, her anticipation blotting out the suffering of her body.”
This is far from a reasoned philosophical account of human personhood. I’m not sure it has much going for it outside the intuitive and emotional at all. But as important as those reasoned philosophical, theological and scientific accounts of human personhood surely are, in the experience of being a human person and being with other human persons, those accounts give way to the emotional and the intuitive, especially when they are roused by suffering.
In some ways that proves that we’re more than mere matter. Or strongly suggests so. Do rocks worry about their souls? Do chickens? Whatever human personhood is, it’s a heavy burden to carry sometimes. But without personhood – if we were mere matter, nothing more than bodies – could we do any carrying at all?
I am a physicalist. It’s the account of human personhood that I find makes most sense. I agree with Corcoran completely. But I doubt sometimes. And I do so, because I’m a human person.